In our series on evidence-based nutritional guidelines, we’ve explored eating plenty of plants and limiting the intake of certain fats. The third and final post takes a closer look at carbohydrates.

For many years, fad diets have excluded carbs, wrongfully naming them a culprit in poor nutrition. In reality, it’s about the quality of the carbohydrates. Complex carbs—those with a high fiber content—have a beneficial effect on your health. Whereas simple, refined carbs—which include added sugars and naturally occurring sugars, as well as grains that have been stripped of natural benefits like fiber and nutrients—can have a detrimental effect. These refined grains include things like white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white rice and many breakfast cereals.

How to Choose Quality Carbs

When considering the overall nutritional value of carbs, it all comes down to fiber. We’ve always heard fiber is ‘good,’ right? Some of us even know about soluble and insoluble fiber (hint: both are good). But what we’ve learned through research published in the last decade is the importance of fiber (soluble, in particular) to the universe of bacteria that live in your gut (a.k.a., microbiota).

Because fiber is indigestible, it travels through the stomach and small intestine to the large intestine, where it helps to increase the number and diversity of gut bacteria, which researchers believe helps protect against chronic inflammation, regulate metabolic function, and improve digestion—which can help reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer.

Simple carbs don’t have this beneficial effect on bacteria; sugar, in particular. Whole grains also often help you feel fuller longer than their processed counterparts (brown rice vs. white rice, for example).

Here are three things you can do now to help your gut bacteria thrive and improve your overall nutrition with whole grains:

1. Transition from no whole grains to more whole grains.

It can be hard to go all in, and that’s often unsustainable, too. When making a long-term nutritional change, try a stepwise transition, aiming for “more” whole grain rather than “only” whole grain.

Tip: Mix half and half white and brown rice for a while. You can also add riced cauliflower to your rice or other grains such as quinoa (which is actually a high protein seed but “acts” like a grain and is so easy to cook).

2. Choose whole grains in a few different ways to see what you like.

For most people, the ease of cooking makes all the difference. For example, if you try cooking farro on the stovetop according to regular rice guidelines, it will take forever and may be still too “chewy/al dente” for most tastes. You may have better luck in a rice cooker on the longer brown rice setting or in the Instapot.

Tip: A great way to try different whole grains is to make a batch of the grain, add beans and grilled veggies, include herbs and spices, and mix it all together with olive oil and lemon juice to taste.

3. Cook with fiber-rich beans and legumes.

Beans and legumes are nutritional powerhouses that are versatile, easy to cook and inexpensive. Add them to soups, salads and bowls with a grain and veggies, or just serve them on the side of a meal.

Tip: Making a pot of beans that will last for the week is so much more flavorful than canned. An easy (and inexpensive) way to try this is using pinto beans; cook dried pintos in the Instapot (after the rapid soak cycle) with some peeled garlic, thyme, bay leaf and salt.

Meal planning can be a time investment and easily fall off the list of priorities. But often, especially when it comes to including fiber in your daily meals, you can meal prep ahead of time to create fiber-rich options for a week at a time.

‘Eating better’ doesn’t have to be hard or restrictive. It doesn’t have to involve tracking and complex calculations of macronutrients. It doesn’t have to involve apps and costly subscriptions. Heck, it doesn’t even have to involve reading labels (if it doesn’t have a nutritional label it’s likely a whole unprocessed food). Focus on cooking whole foods.

Be sure to read the other posts in our series to learn more ways to incorporate eating habit changes into your daily life: